With regional airport leaders from across Europe gathering in Palermo, Sicily this week for ACI Europe’s 13th Regional Airports Conference and Exhibition, the theme for this year’s event is ‘After the darkness, building back better and greener.’
Kicking off the first day of conferencing on Tuesday 29 March, David Feldman, Conference Chair and Managing Director, Exambela highlighted that while “we can survive with the likes of zoom, teams and whats app, we cannot thrive.” He went on to say that airports are fundamentally a people business and about facilitating connectivity, as he declared that this year’s event is all about how regional airports can thrive. “Key to that,’ he said is the need to employ a strategy that is robust, ambitious and pragmatic.
Feldman also challenged ACI’s traditional message that every journey begins at the airport, as he described aviation’s evolving landscape means that the likes of Amazon, Google and Microsoft are all entering the airport (through autonomous and digital technology). Now, he said we need to recognise that: “Every trip begins with Google!”
How regional airports are faring
Taking to the stage after Feldman, ACI Europe’s Director General, Olivier Jankovec, outlined how Europe’s regional airports have lost 821 million passengers over the last two years as he described the “collapse of air traffic across Europe as systemic”.
He also pointed out that how air travel has fared in terms of its recovery correlates directly with government support or lack of. The lack of financial support in Finland and UK, he said, is behind these two countries demonstrating the slowest levels of recovery for their aviation sectors within Europe. He also welcomed the complete u-turn from the UK Government which has now lifted all travel restrictions and has gone from “being one of the most closed to one of the most open countries in Europe.”
On a more positive note Jankovec also revealed that regional airports across Europe have benefitted from the industry’s slow pace of recovery with regional hubs’ recovery being more dynamic than for larger airports. “The recovery of regional airports (with 5-10m passengers) was almost twice that of larger airports in 2021,” he said. “This is partially due to the recovery of intra-European and VFR traffic enabled by the success of vaccination roll outs and governments more efficiently aligning themselves with travel regimes.”
Both ACI and IATA have argued that unnecessary travel restrictions were ineffective in stopping the spread of the virus. Instead Jankovec would like to see proof of vaccination status or -COVID-19 testing being the only requirements for air travel. He also called for universal health and hygiene measures at airports, while state aid and governmental support is essential in airports’ recovery with many airports facing fixed operator costs, growing debts and a crunch on investment.
Looking ahead, there is optimism for the spring/ summer 2022 season with airlines noting an increase in bookings and intra-European connectivity expected to be close to 2019 levels. Regional airports are expected to have airlines deploying more capacity over the summer months to meet demand. In addition, low-cost carriers (LCCs) are credited with driving the recovery with both Ryanair and Wizz Air spearheading the drive in increased capacity in the coming months.
“Overall and based on current airlines’ plans for the summer season, recovery prospects remain pretty good for most of Europe’s regional airports. They could see the capacity deployed by airlines finally exceeding pre-pandemic levels between +1.2% to +2.2% – whereas larger airports will see airline capacity remaining well below such levels. However, these averages mask considerable variations, with regional airports serving popular tourism destinations and located on islands benefitting the most form a recovery fuelled by leisure and VFR demand,” Jankovec added.
Ukraine invasion presents a new challenge
While the pandemic still remains at large, the new challenge facing the industry warned Jankoved is the war in Ukraine, which Jankovec said has “thrown aviation into unchartered territory… In addition to the collapse of passenger traffic at Ukrainian airports and the loss of most international passenger traffic at Russian airports, for some other airports these risks of a heightened downturn in passenger traffic are immediate.”
While most of these risks remain less acute for Europe’s airports at the moment, the continued uncertainty of what impact the war in Ukraine might have in the longer term as well as the impact it is having currently is resulting in renewed supply pressures (with downsized airlines and reduced fleets); slot waivers freezing capacity at major airports which has a knock-on effect on regional hubs; and a spike in fuel costs. He also noted the continued uncertainty could lead to a risk that curbs on air travel will be implemented to reduce oil demand.
Closing his keynote speech Jankovec underlined that while European airports (including many regional hubs) are leading aviation’s decarbonisation journey, one of if not the biggest challenge facing airports and the aviation industry as a whole remains sustainability and decarbonisation. “The threat of climate change is becoming ever more alarming,” said Jankovec. He referenced the EU’s Fit for 55 package which includes mandates for the deployment of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) at all European airports, as well as a requirement for airports to provide facilities for electric charging, and a proposal to tax kerosene. While the industry supports these measures, Jankovec was frustrated that “no cumulative impact assessment on airports and aviation has been conducted.” He emphasised that “it is crucial for Europe and governments to stand for and defend regional air connectivity, which includes airports – they are a test bed for next-generation, electric and hybrid aircraft operations with short-haul routes being the first these aircraft will be deployed on, as well as being integral to UAM and new air connectivity.”
Concluding that “we must and will succeed in decarbonising aviation,” Jankovec referenced a quote by Airbus CEO, Guillaume Faury that stated that collaboration from all stakeholders will help create a global playing field that will ensure all entities from regional airports to smaller airlines will be able to keep pace with energy transition and remain competitive.